Backwater Berkeley

Looking around at the Berkeley flatlands, I see plenty of opportunity for green stormwater retrofits. One of the many places where natural drainage could work is the neighborhood surrounding Aquatic Park, the lowest point in the city. The lagoons at Aquatic Park, which take in bay water at high tides, suffer from a lack of turnover—sometimes the pools are almost stagnant. The city hopes to improve flows and circulation by opening up stormwater pipes (which also get tidal action from the bay) into the lagoons. But Mark Liolios, founder of a group of volunteers (called EGRET) who care for Aquatic Park, is worried the city’s plans to increase flows could push the lagoons over the edge. “When Berkeley’s storm runoff is diverted into the lagoons, it kills the rich marine life there,” says Liolios. “Higher flood levels also threaten the shoreline vegetation that provide screening and roosting for water birds.”

The city has hired consultant Laurel Marcus to come up with a plan for increasing tidal inflows and water flow to the park’s lagoons. Five tubes that connect the lagoons with San Francisco Bay will need to be retrofitted, and the big storm drain pipes coming from Potter and Strawberry creeks would be connected to the lagoons to help increase flows and tidal action, which the low-lying creeks receive. Because water quality in the lagoons is already poor, the city plans to install gates in the pipes to keep them from pouring more contaminated stormwater into the lagoons, particularly at “first flush”—the first heavy rains of the season tainted with detritus that’s been cooking on the streets all summer.

Marcus says that while the gates to prevent too much stormwater coming into the lagoons should work, she is sympathetic with Liolios’ concerns. She has been giving presentations to City of Berkeley staff about green stormwater solutions—a la Portland and Seattle. She thinks natural drainage systems should be installed upstream of Aquatic Park, between Addison Street to the north and Heinz Street to the south and 7th Street to the east. “The more Berkeley can do upstream, the better. All these parking lots could filter and detain water,” says Marcus. “There’s great potential there. We’d like to make it a regional demonstration project and get funding to implement it. This could be integrated into the restoration of the park.”

Natural drainage systems wouldn’t completely eliminate the need for retrofitting the pipes, says Marcus, but they could delay—and thereby treat—much of the runoff before it reaches the lagoons—and the bay. She says, “This is Berkeley’s problem—none of the pollution is coming from someplace else.” Marcus points out that if the city were to implement a demonstration project here, it could very likely get grant money through the regional water board. “It’s interesting that a lot of people think Berkeley is so progressive and ahead. It is, but not on this.” Marcus says a push will need to come “from the top. There is all this green architecture going on, but where are the effects of the green buildings going? People don’t realize that a building that uses fewer impacting materials is nice, but the building itself can have a huge negative impact. There’s space for all of this [green stormwater projects], but it will require funding and a real commitment to recognizing the problem.”

With Berkeley and Albany’s recent Herculean efforts to restore Codornices Creek, particularly for the steelhead that swim to and from the bay, the often-heard excuse that “but Seattle has fish in its streams” no longer applies. Not only do we have fish in many of our urban streams—Wildcat and Alameda creeks to name just a few more—we have plenty of fish in the bay. And many fish, even if they do not spawn in urban areas, move through urban areas to get to the bay and ocean, points out Marcus. They too are affected by urban runoff.

“By addressing stormwater you’d be addressing the biggest source of pollution into San Francisco Bay,” says Marcus. “Some of the pollutants of concern—heavy metals, pesticides, persistent materials—go into the food chain. Those are the things that can be taken out by biofiltration; it catches the little particles. You don’t want them to go down into the bay.”

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